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Benign Obsession

by Charlie Vicent

Her user-name with the online auction service, e-Bay, makes a frank statement about Susan Toomey Frost's addiction to collecting Mexican arts, artifacts and antiquities. .
On the world wide web site, that is how she is known. And in person, she says it is an accurate description of the hold Mexico's artistic history has upon her life.
"Nobody assigned me this," says Toomey Frost, standing in the foyer of her Austin home, surrounded by 50 filing boxes, each containing approximately 800 Mexican postcards. "It's just what I do."
There are postcards picturing palm trees and postcards paying homage to ancient churches, postcards of burros loaded with agave and postcards of women in traditional dress, postcards of roadside motels and postcards of beaches. Postcards that most would not take if they were being given away.
"A great deal of this could be characterized as junk by many people," she says, "but what's junk to some is someone else's treasure." And the most treasured of her collection are the postcards bearing photos taken by Hugo Brehme, a German who recorded with his camera the Mexico of the first half of the 20th century, before dying in 1954.
Susan Toomey Frost became a collector of Brehme almost by accident, but she was destined almost from birth, to be a collector of something. Her paternal grandfather collected stamps and recruited her  as a child  to put them in albums and keep them presentable. An uncle collected clocks and coins. Her mother collects "anything and everything; the good, the bad and the ugly, all piled together. Mother simply accumulates and daddy builds another storage unit behind the house. When she fills it up, they lock the doors. They put numbers on the doors. They're up to number seven."
So the question never was: "Will Susan collect?" but "What will she collect?"
In Guadalajara, in the aftermath of what she calls a "hairy divorce", she found the answer. Or rather, the first answer.
She is either well-to-do or wealthy, take your pick  though she isn't inclined to talk about it. Her family has owned land in Austin for generations and the divorce that sent her to Mexico was from a man named Frost, whose family is the Frost Bank of San Antonio. In 1973, when she determined San Antonio was not large enough for ex-husband and ex-wife, she packed up her two children and took a teaching position at Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara.
There she began a collection of books on the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that now totals more than 10,000. "That was the beginning," she says. "Then I began collecting Mexican art on paper and got very interested in that."
Her home is filled with the evidence. Paintings done by Mexican artists in the first half of the 20th century vie for space on her walls with black-and-white photos of a Mexico that no longer exists. One-of-kind Mexican tiles fill display cases and pottery and plates and more tiles hang in her kitchen and adorn her sun- dappled patios while bookcases sag beneath the weight of her literary acquisitions.
By the time she remarried in the late 80s, her collections were so extensive that her new husband  a newspaper reporter  could only look at the house he had moved into and shake his head.
"He is a minimalist person," says Toomey Frost. "He had like one knife and fork and spoon, because you're going to wash them before the next meal, right?'. All his possessions, he could put in half a closet".
"He said, Well, what do you need that for?' I think he really thought that if I had the love of a good man, I wouldn't need this substitute. But over the years he has come to understand."
Today she is recognized as an expert on Brehme's work  indeed, maybe, as the expert. And she came upon him by accident. It was one of his photographs of tiles that first caught her eye.
Toomey Frost had become intrigued with San Jose tiles, manufactured in San Antonio. But identifying true San Joses was a problem. "Some Mexican tiles had been installed in San Antonio," she says, "so I had to have a way to identify which were made there and which were from Mexico. I decided if I could find pictures from Mexico of tiles with patterns on them, I could be pretty sure that those tiles were made in Mexico, because we didn't make tiles that were imported to Mexico.
"I started looking for pictures  and postcards  on the internet to do research and I found one photographer  Brehme  with some beautiful tiles in the background, just gorgeous. I loved the composition and I thought: Damn, this is a really fine photographer'.
"I looked him up on the internet and there were two references to the photographer and art dealers. A dealer on the East Coast had one postcard that he was asking $250 for and the other wanted $150. Well, that got my attention. I had been buying these things for 10 cents, maybe a dollar. When I started, nobody wanted Mexico (postcards)".
"I had only been hunting for tiles and pottery and not the other stuff, but I decided then that I needed more of this photographer, so I started in earnest and it was purely thinking that I could flip things I found for very little  sell it for more  and use the money to buy things I really wanted."
She went to flea markets, postcard shows, networked with other collectors and, eventually, sought out stamp dealers, "because they're looking for the cancellation and don't care what's on the front. When they have a crummy stamp and a crummy cancellation, they toss it into a box, because it useless to them. What they throw away may be a really wonderful postcard on the other side".
"One dealer sold me a whole box for $120 and I found three Brehmes in there, so it was a good deal . . . now I think I have thirteen hundred and fifty-some Brehmes. Photographs, Christmas cards  he introduced the photographic Christmas card to Mexico  and postcards."
Her study of Brehme led her to other Mexican photographers of that era, Luis Marquez, Rodolfo Montiel, Mauricio Yanez and Manuel Alvarez Bravo  recognized as one of the greatest Mexican photographers ever  who bought his first camera while working in Brehme's studio.
"Those Germans and Swiss were trained in photography schools and then spread out to the world, because there was the fascination with the noble savage', you know, documenting the world's people."
Some of the postcards are worth money; others are worth memories. And Toomey Frost finds one as valuable as the other. She tells of a man from Mission, Texas, who came to look at her collection. His father had owned a small motel in a rural town in Mexico, and behind the motel they started a nursery.
"He was here with his kids, and they found a postcard with a picture of the family motel. He got so excited. He said: There's the balcony! And that's my father's truck. There's the nursery sign! We lived there!'
"When something like that happens it makes it all worthwhile."
Though the vast majority of her collection is not Hugo Brehme's work, it is history. And it is irreplaceable.
"A lot of the postcards are unique. They are the only evidence of what something looked like at a point in time. The only records we have. That's why I collect from beginning to end, urban history through the years, (so we can ask) did we do a good job . . . I collect from very old to chromes because this is a continuous world.
"I collect things that I find attractive or beautiful, or for some reason, it's important. That's what motivates me."
She is a gregarious woman, easily given to laughter, quick to see the quirky side of life and the quirky side of what she does. But about her collecting she is intensely serious. And not in the least modest.
"I am a good collector," she says matter-of-factly. "My premise is collecting something no one sees value in at the time. There is no price guide for it, the research hasn't been done, the book hasn't been written about it. It's something that has been overlooked. Or they just haven't recognized. I'll see some kind of inherent beauty in it that I think is valuable. I start collecting it, I research it, I write about it, or get on TV about it, publicize it.
"Then I defeat my own purpose because the price goes up, because other people begin collecting it too."
I told her I had been told that she was an "important collector" and as a novice in this field, I didn't really know what that meant.
"An important collector," she said, without disputing that she should be included in those ranks, "is one that has a good eye, in the first place. A sense of connoisseurship, intense focus on getting the objects, studying them, studying what's behind them, who made it, when, why, what materials. What was it sold for? What was its intent? Cataloging. And an important collector shares that information with the world, either through writing articles themselves or lending the material and making it available to researchers, lending stuff to museums.
"And promoting what those artists do. Honoring them and honoring their families for putting up with their manias. Share that with the world and share your emotions about it. What a collector brings to a collection is the knowledge and previous experience that gives a perspective that's different."
She has opened her home to lectures and an occasional tour to display her collection. "I am," she says, "only the temporary custodian of (these collections). I do not own them; they own me."
For Susan Toomey Frost there are many rewards in her benignobsession. "I go to e-Bay every single day. I wake up and that is job one and the world comes to me . . . doing this, you meet the rich, the not so rich, all kinds of people . . .
About her future as a collector, she is certain of only one thing. "I want to go out running down the aisle at a flea market someplace in hot pursuit of the ultimate thing I'm missing . . .there's no dumpster you won't dive in, if you think your stuff is in there.
"I will be doing this until my dying day. I can't stop it and wouldn't want to."

 

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